by Craig Pittman | June 6, 2022
An Author’s Last Unsolved Mystery in Apalachicola
Dawn Lee McKenna’s mystery series endeared a legion of readers, who flock to the Panhandle setting of her novels and hope to one day have closure on the ultimate cliffhanger.
With one unassuming phone call in early 2015, John Solomon and his sleepy Panhandle town became something of celebrities. He was working at the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center when he answered a call from a woman in Tennessee. The caller identified herself as Dawn Lee McKenna, an aspiring mystery writer who wanted to pen a novel set in Apalachicola. She was looking for someone who could tell her about the town and its surroundings. She was also looking for someone who could fill her in about the local sheriff’s office there in Franklin County.
“Well,” said Solomon, “I’m pretty sure I’m your dude.”
He explained that he’d been the local chamber’s executive director for about six months and knew a lot about Apalachicola and the region it’s in. Then he told the author that he had started that job after retiring from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department after 20 years.
McKenna, delighted, had a lot of questions for him. I mean a lot.
In June 2015, McKenna published Low Tide, the first book in what would become her “Forgotten Coast” series, which she labeled as “semi-noir, darkly funny and atmospheric suspense.”
She described Apalachicola in that first book as “one of the few places left that actually felt like Florida, with its century-old brick and clapboard shops and houses, the marina filled with shrimp and oyster boats, and people who couldn’t care less about Disney World.”
In her second installment, Riptide, she painted a fuller picture: “Apalachicola was a throwback to an earlier time…It was primarily a fishing town, famous for its Apalachicola oysters and Gulf shrimp…Tourists came for the oysters, the fishing, the beaches of St. George Island and the nine hundred historic buildings turned into gift shops, nautical art galleries and restaurants. The town had one traffic light, a passing acquaintance with severe weather, and fewer than 3,000 residents.”
McKenna’s series focuses on a fictional detective, Lt. Maggie Redmond. She’s white, in her 30s, 5-foot-3, with dark hair and a ton of self-doubt. Maggie is a single mom who grew up in Apalachicola and lives in a cypress stilt house her grandfather built in the 1950s. She used to be married to a shrimper, and as the series begins, she remains friendly with her ex while raising their two kids, a teenage girl and a younger boy.
The town had one traffic light, a passing acquaintance with severe weather, and fewer than 3,000 residents.
— Dawn Lee McKenna
Maggie is one tough cookie. By the third book, she’s shot two criminals dead—one of them a drug dealer who’s trying to strangle her, the other someone who’s already wounded a colleague and is waiting to gun her down too.
As the series begins, she is investigating what appears to be a suicide on the beach, and meanwhile contemplating beginning an affair with her boss and best friend, Sheriff Wyatt Hamilton. Maggie is hiding a big secret about her connection to the dead man. That leads to her being drawn into a strange relationship with the local crime lord, a wealthy and always polite Louisiana-born seafood dealer named Bennett Boudreaux.
In the acknowledgments of Low Tide, McKenna gave Solomon a special shoutout for helping with her research. He also appears as a character in several of the books, doing exactly what he does in real life.
Solomon says he made a deal with the author that she could put him in the books, but only on two conditions: “I got to be myself, and I don’t die.”
Solomon is one of several real Apalachicola residents who pop up in minor roles throughout the fictional series running a coffee shop or overseeing hotel check-ins. Despite the boilerplate disclaimer about “all persons, living or dead” being fictional, even Apalachicola’s real mayor at the time, Van Johnson Sr., shows up in the series. Real Apalachicola businesses get special shoutouts, such as a waterfront seafood restaurant Boss Oyster.
While McKenna’s books paint a portrait of Apalachicola as a picturesque fishing village/beach town, they also show it as the home to killers, drug dealers, kidnappers, abused women, human traffickers and corrupt cops and politicians. There are enough grisly discoveries to fuel a couple of seasons of Forensic Files.
McKenna’s characters display a dark sense of humor about those discoveries. In Riptide, a shrimper pulls up his net and discovers he’s caught a severed foot. When someone asks the elderly medical examiner what he makes of the foot, he replies, “Well, it’s not a candidate for reattachment.”
Solomon joked that McKenna did a fine job of depicting the town, “except she boosted our crime rate by about 500 percent. We had one murder in 10 years, and she had five in a few months.”
Yet the books are also fairly wholesome. “There’s no cursing, no gratuitous violence and no sex,” McKenna’s mother, Linda Maxwell said.
Despite her crime-soaked descriptions of the town she called “Apalach,” around the time book number three came out, Solomon noticed a strange phenomenon:
Fans of McKenna’s series started showing up at the visitor center.
They wanted to see the Forgotten Coast they’d encountered in her books. They wanted to see the places she wrote about and meet the real people she’d mentioned. It was as if Jessica Fletcher fans began showing up in Cabot Cove to see the settings of the murders she’d solved.
“They tell me, ‘We’ve read all the books, and we had to come see everything,” Solomon said. “I actually signed some autographs one time.”
Six years later, the flow of McKenna’s books has ceased, but the flow of McKenna-reading tourists hasn’t. Solomon figures two or three groups a month stop in at his office on their sightseeing visits, some of them armed with maps and notes.
They want the full Dawn Lee McKenna Experience.
A Little-Known Literary Legend
Last December, I was having brunch with a friend in Tallahassee, and we were discussing Florida crime writers. We rounded up the usual suspects—John D. MacDonald, Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, Randy Wayne White. We mentioned a few who aren’t as well known, such as Carolina Garcia-Aguilera and Tom Corcoran.
Then my friend said, “I really love Dawn Lee McKenna’s books.”
“Who?” I said. She proceeded to tell me all about her, including the part about the readers showing up in Apalachicola. I was astounded.
I figured other people more attuned to the latest thrillers must have heard of this. I contacted Oline Cogdill, a longtime Fort Lauderdale mystery book critic who’s won a Raven award from the Mystery Writers of America. She was as clueless as I was.
“You’ve stumped me,” she said, admitting that she, too, had never heard of McKenna.
But some of McKenna’s fellow writers told me they definitely knew her work, although they had never met the author.
Claire Matturo, a Sarasota native and the author of such Florida-set mysteries as The Smuggler’s Daughter, praised McKenna’s writing and knack for capturing what makes Florida so special.
“I grew up further south on the Florida coast, but I can spot a fake Floridian a mile away in fiction, and she’s the real deal,” Matturo said.
McKenna never made the New York Times Bests Sellers List, or even got a mention in any metro newspaper’s book section. Yet she became a bestselling author. It was McKenna’s choice of publishing format—the e-book—that made her such a hit with readers while keeping her name a secret.
“There are people you’ve never heard of who are killing it on Kindle Unlimited,” explained Tamara “Tara” Lush, a St. Petersburg-based author who has published both romance and mystery novels in a variety of formats, most recently Grounds for Murder and Cold Brew Corpse. “Some of them are making $10,000 a month, because there are mystery and romance readers who read a book a day and they’re looking for new content.”
Readers pay Kindle Unlimited $9.99 a month for access to Amazon e-books. Some of the e-books are published by Amazon, which provides them to Kindle Unlimited subscribers free of charge. The authors then get payments from Amazon based on the number of downloads for their books.
I grew up further south on the Florida coast, but I can spot a fake Floridian a mile away in fiction, and she’s the real deal.
— Claire Matturo
Some, like McKenna, also publish paperback editions. But the big money is in the digital downloads. In February 2021, McKenna posted on her Facebook fan page: “Do you guys realize that you’ve bought over 250,000 copies of my books?…Add in the millions of pages read in Kindle Unlimited, and it’s more like 640,000. You’re the best readers any author could dream of having.”
One of the most successful Kindle Unlimited authors is Melbourne native Wayne Stinnett, Lush said. His adventure novels feature an ex-military charter boat captain, and they’re largely set in the Keys.
Stinnett, a Marine Corps veteran, worked as a deckhand, commercial fisherman, divemaster, taxi driver, construction manager and truck driver before penning his first novel. Stinnett said he’d never met McKenna in person, but they became friends while chatting in an online forum for authors. He enjoyed a Southern romance novel she’d written, See You.
“I convinced her to try writing a mystery,” he said. “Within five or six months she had two books ready to publish.”
To show her gratitude for his encouragement, McKenna not only thanked Stinnett in Low Tide’s acknowledgments, but also gave Stinnett’s name to one of her characters.
“I was a crusty old oysterman,” he said, chuckling. “So I made her a Key West fortune-teller in one of my books.”
Stinnett emails out a regular author newsletter for his fans. He used that to endorse McKenna’s first novel about Apalachicola, which helped to spark her sales.
“I had a pretty good following,” he said. “She did phenomenally well.”
Stinnett’s version of what happened makes McKenna sound like an overnight smash. But according to her family, that skips over years of preparation—some of it involving a cookbook.
A Creative Turning Point
McKenna had such an innate feeling for life in a Florida beach town because she grew up in one, said her daughter, Kat Scheideler.
She was born in Pompano Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale, an only child whose father disappeared when she was just a baby, according to Maxwell, her mother.
“She loved the ocean,” her mother said. “She was pretty fearless about jumping in from anywhere.”
For a time, Maxwell held a treasure-hunting lease in the Keys and she and the future author lived aboard a boat. Once, to visit relatives, they drove thousands of miles from Key West to the Panama Canal. On these trips, McKenna would have a book to read, or she’d be making up her own stories, her mother said.
“She started writing, seriously writing, when she was 14 and wrote a book,” her mother said. The initial version was good, Maxwell said, but she kept tinkering with it and somehow she never got around to deciding it was ready to send to a publisher.
She really wanted to be a scriptwriter. Once, as a teenager, she ran into Martin Sheen at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater and handed him one of her screenplays, her mother said. He must have read it that night because the next day she saw him, and he praised her work. (Sheen and his electric blue eyes became the model for Boudreaux.)
Her ambition was to make enough money to not have to write for other people.
— Linda Maxwell
When McKenna gave birth to her first child, her mother said, she dropped out of college and moved to Tennessee, believing it to be a better place to raise a child. She found work, albeit unfulfilling, in the food industry, eventually becoming a restaurant manager to support herself and her children after splitting with her husband.
“She had a hard time working for other people, and she didn’t like supervising other people too,” Maxwell said.
The turning point came when she discovered ghostwriting could pay her bills, her mother said. These writing jobs didn’t pay well—$1,200 to crank out a book in a week or so—and her name never appeared on the cover. But McKenna learned she could write fast, she could focus on the job despite distractions and she could produce work that was good enough to publish.
“She ghostwrote 30 books,” Scheideler, her daughter, said. “Sometimes we wrote them together—cookbooks and exercise books, mostly.”
One of those ghostwritten books was A Hunger Games Cookbook, she said. “We went all out. We made all the recipes up ourselves.”
All along, though, she had in mind writing a book of her own. She wanted it to be set in the kind of Florida beach town she knew as a child, her daughter said. She spent years plugging various descriptions into Google, trying to find just the right town.
When I asked why not just make something up, as most authors do, her daughter explained, “Because she wanted it to be real.”
When she found Apalachicola and connected with Solomon, everything clicked. She used Google Earth to walk the streets of the town until she knew the place as well as anyone could, her mother said.
“Her ambition was to make enough money to not have to write for other people,” Maxwell said. That goal turned out to be surprisingly easy to meet.
“The first book sold ridiculously well,” Scheideler said. McKenna was stunned by her success, sometimes holding up her first royalty check from Amazon as if it were a trophy.
The second one came out later that same month. “Released today and already a bestseller,” McKenna tweeted.
One of the keys to the books’ success is their brevity. They’re all around 200 pages. Another is that McKenna structured them as a series of cliffhangers. Readers don’t find out the truth about the crime in the first book until the third one. She withholds the revelation of Boudreaux’s secret until the fourth one. Maggie herself doesn’t figure it out until the sixth one.
Amid the mysteries and the personal drama, fans also relish the comic relief provided by Maggie’s pets: Cocoa, the dog that always greets her at home begging for a belly rub (based on McKenna’s own dog), and Stoopid, her rooster with limited communication skills and maximum obstreperousness.
“I especially enjoy the stories about Stoopid,” one of her fans, Carl Christenson, the former chief ranger of Gulf Islands National Seashore, told me. He also liked a second series she started, this one concerning a police officer in Port St. Joe.
McKenna co-wrote those with a writer named Axel Blackwell (whose name also pops up on a character who’s a murder suspect in the seventh book).
Blackwell, a former Border Patrol agent who lives in the Pacific Northwest, was also a member of the author’s group with Stinnett and McKenna. They had fun collaborating on the three books they co-wrote, each of them using their strengths:
“She put the Florida in it, and I put the cop in it,” he said. But they never met, he told me.
McKenna helped mentor another writer, one about as different from her as possible. Dan Mason, who writes under the name “Cap Daniels,” stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 275 pounds. He looked like a giant next to the petite McKenna. Unlike Stinnett and Blackwell, Mason met her face-to-face, and they even ate dinner together.
“Every word I wrote after meeting her I wrote knowing that she would read it,” Mason said. “It made me a more attentive writer.”
Despite the praise from other writers and her fans, McKenna never took herself too seriously. In her eighth “Forgotten Coast” novel, Lake Morality, she has a character refer to “that author lady” who keeps visiting the town, then adds, “I don’t think all her tires are properly inflated, if you know what I mean.”
“I Want to See Where the Body Was Found”
At the end of each of her books, McKenna asked fans to subscribe to her newsletter. Some 100,000 people signed up, her daughter told me. Those personal connections helped to foster a sense of family among the writer and her readers.
On her Facebook page, McKenna admitted that she was often trying to find something entertaining to say because she felt her books were “a lot more interesting” than she was in her private life. Sometimes she just posted video clips of music from her church in Kingsport, Tennessee, to which she was quite devoted.
While McKenna did well with e-books, her self-published paperback editions, produced under the imprint Sweet Tea Press, had a harder time finding readers. Her cousin, Chrystal Hartigan, who had worked in music promotion, took some of them to beach town bookstores up and down the East Coast, trying to interest them in selling the books that did so well on Amazon. Only a couple of stores outside of Florida were at all interested, she told me.
One place her printed books do sell well: Apalachicola’s one and only bookstore, which doubles as a knitting supply store: Downtown Books & Purl.
“These things fly out of there,” said owner Dale Julian. “Everybody who’s local has read them, and in many cases there are walk-on parts for real people.”
Sometimes tourists visit the bookstore who aren’t already McKenna fans, she said. They just want something short to read on the flight home to Chicago. Julian always recommends the first of McKenna’s series.
“Then they call me two days later from Chicago,” she said. “They tell me, ‘Put the other nine in a box and send them to me. Here’s my credit card number.’”
Others are already fans, visiting the scenes of the crimes they’ve read about. “They come in and say, ‘I want to see where the body was found,’” Julian said.
The bookstore has been around for 20 years, but Julian said she’d never seen anything like the crowds that showed up for McKenna’s appearance at the store.
“It was hot, hot, hot,” she said. “Everything started at 1 p.m. with a lunch with the local book club. Then at 2 p.m. we started the signing. The overflow crowd stretched halfway down the street. What was supposed to be a two-hour book signing turned into four hours. Then she went down to the coffee shop that’s featured in the books and invited any of the readers who wanted coffee to go with her. She got in a golf cart and rode around with her readers. Meanwhile I was ready to go lie down in the stockroom.”
The signing was crazy, but the cruise was even crazier.
What was supposed to be a two-hour book signing turned into four hours. Then she went down to the coffee shop that’s featured in the books and invited any of the readers who wanted coffee to go with her.
— Dale Julian
A travel agent pitched the idea to McKenna: A trip on a cruise ship, the Empress of the Sea, with her fans. Those who paid to go would enjoy exclusive access to McKenna to quiz her about anything.
She was uneasy about it, but said yes, Stinnett said.
“She didn’t like being in the limelight,” Stinnett told me. “Going on the cruise was very, very stressful for her. She was self-conscious about her looks.”
About 150 fans signed up for the trip, Scheideler said. They were all given T-shirts that proclaimed, “I’m With Stoopid,” and featured a drawing of Maggie’s rooster. Despite her personal unease, McKenna spent as much time with her fans as possible.
The author’s popularity fueled her determination to do a lot more with her gift. She started another series of books, these set in the Panhandle too, but in the 1970s. She planned for Sweet Tea Press to publish books by other authors, not just her.
And after Hurricane Michael hit Apalachicola, she created a charity called The Unforgotten Coast Fund to help the town’s businesses recover. She planned to write seven more books in the “Forgotten Coast” series, for a total of 17, using special events to raise money for the fund.
But the series stopped at 10 because the unthinkable happened: McKenna stopped writing for a whole year in 2020.
The Year of Not Writing
McKenna had survived several bouts with melanoma when she was in her 20s, her mother said.
“She thought she had punched her cancer ticket,” she told me.
But then, in 2016, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy, in the meantime still cranking out her fiction.
She could cook and clean house and do laundry and even deal with raw sewage seeping out from under her rented home, her mother said. Somehow she still made time to write, her fingers flying across the keyboard.
She thought she’d beaten cancer a second time. But then, in November 2018, she told her fans: “Okay, you readers who have become my friends and family…The verdict is cancer, metastatic to the bones from the breast cancer. Treatable, but not as yet curable.”
Now she had a lot to say on Facebook. She recounted her biopsies, chemotherapy treatments and loss of hair, in between mentions of her favorite comforts: Kraft macaroni and cheese, John Cusack movies (her favorite was “Grosse Point Blank”) and snuggling with her cat.
For the first time in my life, I couldn’t write a word. At least, I couldn’t write anything worth reading. This led to me watching my career flash before my eyes, certain that y’all would forget about my books.
— Dawn Lee McKenna
Now she struggled to keep up with the demand she’d created. Her health problems made it impossible. She called it “the Year of Not Writing,” confessing in her newsletter, “For the first time in my life, I couldn’t write a word. At least, I couldn’t write anything worth reading. This led to me watching my career flash before my eyes, certain that y’all would forget about my books.”
Even her charity work suffered. She wrote on the Unforgotten Coast Facebook page: “I haven’t been able to do the cool fundraisers or produce the book-related merchandise readers have been asking for.”
In April 2020, McKenna pasted on her Facebook fan page a picture of a book cover for something called Beam Sea, with this caption: “Making no release date promises because things are just wonky, but guess which book decided to start writing itself again?”
Months passed before she mentioned Beam Sea again, noting in January 2021 that “tomorrow I will be back to work on #11 in the FC series.” In a February response to a query on Goodreads, she wrote, “I’m currently working on Beam Sea, the 11th book in the Forgotten Coast series. Hopefully we’ll release in March, if health and time cooperate.”
But spring came and went, with no book. In June’s newsletter she wrote, “Here’s some other news that might make you smile: Beam Sea, #11 in the Forgotten Coast series, will be out in July… It’s a fun one. In Beam Sea, the most reviled man in town is murdered and pretty much everyone in town is a suspect.”
July rolled into August with no sign of Beam Sea. Then, in October 2021, her mother broke the worst possible news to the readers of McKenna’s newsletter.
Beneath a large photo of McKenna’s cat, Maxwell wrote: “Miss Lady, her irascible cat, is still waiting on the center of her bed, but my daughter, Dawn Lee McKenna, slipped away quietly last Saturday morning, September 25. She was surrounded by her four children and spent her last precious moments giving and receiving love.”
She asked that subscribers stick with the newsletter, which she promised would continue, adding, “Not all of Dawn’s tales have been told.” But there have been no more newsletters, and no new books.
The Ultimate Cliffhanger
When fans show up in Apalachicola these days, Solomon said, one question they always ask is, “Do you think we’ll ever get that 11th book?”
They want to know what happens next with Maggie, Wyatt and Bennett Boudreaux, not to mention Stoopid. McKenna’s death left them with the ultimate cliffhanger. The characters still live in the readers’ imaginations, even as their creator has ceased to exist.
Her family is well aware there’s still a strong appetite for McKenna’s books. Her daughter said that Blackwell would continue the series he co-wrote with her mother, but Blackwell told me he can’t, not without McKenna. He also squashed any rumors he’d be the one to finish Beam Sea: “I’m not able to write in her voice.”
McKenna herself was apparently having trouble doing that, toward the end.
“I know she wrote 3,000 to 4,000 words,” Scheideler told me. “But she said she hated them. She was kind of a secretive, sneaky person…The problem is, she was so special to us, there’s no way to do her justice with that series.”
Maxwell and Scheideler told me they’ve talked of creating audiobooks, tapping a new market, but their plans haven’t progressed very far. As for finishing Beam Sea, “we are definitely entertaining the idea,” Scheideler said. They just haven’t figured out how.
The problem is, she was so special to us, there’s no way to do her justice with that series.
— Kat Scheideler
When McKenna died at age 58, no one was ready for it. The family posted no obituary, an odd omission for someone who made her living with words. No funeral home handled the body. Instead, Maxwell said, they simply cremated the body and held a hastily organized memorial service for her at Hope Community Church’s camp, an outdoor setting McKenna adored. Stinnett and Mason were there, but no one from Apalachicola was able to attend on such short notice.
As for her ashes, her daughter said, some of them will be turned into jewelry for family members and some will remain in an urn she plans to keep.
But some of them she plans to take on a sailing trip into Apalachicola Bay. She wants to scatter them in the place that made Mckenna’s dream of being a successful author come true.
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